Recovering from a heart transplant 

After a heart transplant, you will be moved to the intensive care unit to recover. You will be under sedation and connected to a ventilator to help your breathing.

The specialist team will constantly check and monitor your condition. It may take anything from a few hours to a few days before you are able to breathe without the aid of a ventilator.

During this time you will be given fluid and medication directly into your veins (intravenously). When your condition is stable, you will probably be moved to a high-dependency ward to continue your recovery.

You will normally be discharged from hospital two to three weeks after surgery.

Follow up appointments

You will be asked to stay near the transplant centre for one month after your operation. For the second month, you will need to visit weekly for four weeks.

After that you will have a blood test every six weeks, and will be seen at the transplant centre every three months for the rest of your life.

Getting back to normal

For the first six weeks after surgery, you need to avoid pushing, pulling or lifting anything heavy. You will be encouraged to take part in a cardiac rehabilitation programme involving exercises to build up your strength.

You will usually be advised not to drive for between 6 and 12 weeks after your transplant, but ask your doctor for more information.

Most people can return to work after a heart transplant, but the timeframe depends on your job and how well you recover.

If you plan on going on holiday, it may help to wait until the first year of frequent follow-up appointments has finished. Speak to your doctor for more advice on travelling after a heart transplant.

Immunosuppressants

After having a heart transplant, one of the biggest risks is that your immune system will regard the new heart as a foreign object and start attacking it. This is known as rejection.

For more information about rejection, read our page on risks of a heart transplant.

To prevent your new heart from being rejected, you will need medication, known as immunosuppressants, to suppress your immune system.

Immunosuppressants work by interfering with the normal activities of specialised white blood cells called T-cells.

The immune system uses T-cells to attack foreign cells, such as bacteria, viruses and, in the case of transplants, donated tissue, such as your new heart and lungs.

Most people who have a heart transplant need to take a combination of two or three different immunosuppressants for the rest of their life. However, if you respond well to treatment, the doses of immunosuppressants may be lowered over the long term.

Immunosuppressants are powerful medications that can have a range of side effects. 

Possible side effects include:

While these side effects may be troublesome, you should never stop taking or reduce the recommended dose of immunosuppressants. If you do, it could lead to your heart and lungs being rejected.

Your transplant team may be able to provide additional treatments to help reduce any side effects you experience after taking immunosuppressants.

Page last reviewed: 23/06/2014

Next review due: 23/06/2016